July 12, 1934 – Feb. 27, 2013

WASHINGTON – Van Cliburn, the tall, gangly, curly-haired Texan who became the most famous classical pianist in American history over the course of a single extraordinary week in 1958, died Wednesday at his home in Fort Worth, Texas. He was 78.

His death, from bone cancer, was announced by his publicist and longtime friend, Mary Lou Falcone.

In April 1958, Mr. Cliburn, then 23, went to Moscow at the height of the Cold War and brought home the gold medal in the new Tchaikovsky International Piano Competition for his rendition of the composer’s Concerto No. 1. The contest had been established to showcase Russian superiority in culture, six months after the scientific triumph of launching Sputnik, the first space satellite.

Mr. Cliburn’s performance – the crystalline touch, the welling songfulness – prompted an eight-minute standing ovation. But given the political tensions at the time, the judges of the competition checked with Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev before announcing their decision to give the prize to a non-Soviet musician.

“Is he the best?” Khrushchev is said to have replied. “Then give him the prize!”

Mr. Cliburn was mobbed in Moscow by joyful admirers. Women reportedly wept and fainted at his concerts.

“Van looked and played like some kind of angel,” the Russian pianist Andrei Gavrilov later recalled. “He didn’t fit the evil image of capitalists that had been painted for us by the Soviet government.”

Mr. Cliburn’s achievement was reported on the front pages of newspapers throughout the world. He returned home to a New York ticker-tape parade and the sort of shrieking, unfettered adulation that a few years later would be transmuted into Beatlemania. In May 1958, Time magazine put him on its cover with a banner that read “The Texan Who Conquered Russia.”

By the time he was 24, he was the subject of a biography by the critic and composer Abram Chasins, titled “The Van Cliburn Legend.”

Such sudden celebrity was heady stuff for a shy, soft-spoken young man who not long before had spent most of his time playing scales in the obscurity of a practice room at New York’s Juilliard School. Not surprisingly, Mr. Cliburn seemed to have found the expectations impossible to live up to.

By 1978, Mr. Cliburn had withdrawn from the concert stage. He moved to Fort Worth, where he bought a mansion and became increasingly prominent in the city’s social life. In 1989, he came out of retirement to play his signature piece at the Mann Center in Philadelphia, to respectful reviews.

Harvey Lavan Cliburn Jr. was born in Shreveport, La., on July 12, 1934, and grew up in Kilgore, Texas. He was the only child of Harvey Lavan Cliburn, an oil executive, and the former Rildia Bee O’Bryan, a piano teacher. His mother doted on him; with the exception of a couple of years in his 20s, they would live together until her death in 1994 at age 97. His mother started him on the piano when he was 3.

In the mid-1990s, Mr. Cliburn was briefly in the news after his former domestic partner Thomas Zaremba, a mortician who was also responsible for the pianist’s makeup, sued him for “palimony,” claiming that he had managed Mr. Cliburn’s business affairs, paid bills and generally run the household from 1964 to 1994. In 1997, the case was thrown out.

In the denouement of his life, Mr. Cliburn was showered with awards. He received the Kennedy Center Honors in 2001, and in 2010 President Obama presented him the National Medal of Arts at the White House.

– Washington Post